Thursday 24 January 2019

Colette Browne: 'Refusal to debate issues raised by Casey sends a message to voters that their concerns are not important'

'While Mr Casey’s campaign was run on an entirely negative basis – up to and including a bizarre attack advertisements about Michael D Higgins’s dogs – the political establishment in this country will have to prepare itself for more of the same.' Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire
'While Mr Casey’s campaign was run on an entirely negative basis – up to and including a bizarre attack advertisements about Michael D Higgins’s dogs – the political establishment in this country will have to prepare itself for more of the same.' Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

Peter Casey is not a radical new alternative on the Irish political landscape - but that doesn't mean he doesn't have a future.

Mr Casey is currently at the centre of a media whirlwind, having come from last place in opinion polls to earn a respectable 340,000 first preference votes in the presidential election.

While the real story of the election is the resounding re-election of Michael D Higgins on the first count, it would be foolish to discount Mr Casey's achievement.

He went from political roadkill to a serious contender in a few short weeks - using only his gob and his unrivalled ability for self-promotion to do so.

Enjoying the limelight at the moment, Mr Casey has signalled his intention to remain on the political stage. The question is, is there room for him? And, does he really have anything other than cheap jibes to offer?

According to RTÉ's exit poll, a large portion of the 23pc of voters who supported Casey did so because they believe he stands up for 'ordinary people'.

As an unpolished media performer, who didn't rely on banal rehearsed soundbites, Mr Casey set himself apart from his more scripted opponents - whose only contribution to the campaign was a series of obvious platitudes.

And, while the negative manner in which Mr Casey ran his campaign was risible, his message - that there is a contingent of people who have been left behind in middle Ireland - clearly struck a chord.

The problem for the political establishment, which would clearly prefer if Mr Casey faded back into oblivion, is that he is not going away. And neither will his message.

So, while Mr Casey has been treated as something of a joke candidate, it would be wrong to dismiss the hundreds of thousands of people who voted for him as being confused or duped or racist or wrong.

Mr Casey was able to make the kind of impact that he did by targeting Travellers, creating a splash and a deluge of media coverage, but then followed that up by ramming home a message that there are those in society who work very hard and have very little to show for it; the people who pay huge amounts in tax, yet see very little in public services for their cash - no free medical care and no childcare. Even education, while notionally free, comes at a huge cost.

Some of these people will have voted for Mr Casey because of what he said about Travellers, and their belief that he was a maverick sticking it to the PC establishment, but there are many others who are frustrated and angry. And they should not be written off as cranks or bigots.

In other countries, with comparable levels of taxation, public services do not come with a price tag. The social contract, in those places, is maintained because everyone buys into - and benefits from - the system.

It should not be considered politically toxic to advocate for these people or to represent their concerns. The key lies in how those concerns are framed and the way in which politicians go about their work.

Ironically, while Fine Gael has been very critical of Mr Casey's approach to campaigning, their critique belies the fact that Leo Varadkar has also made similar remarks - when it comes to social welfare.

In fact, Mr Casey co-opted language used by Mr Varadkar himself, when he spoke about wanting to represent those who get up early in the morning and those who have to work for everything and get nothing.

So, if we are having an honest debate about the tone that was set by Mr Casey, and the divisive language that he used, it is important to also include in that context a long history of simplistic analyses of issues related to issues such as social welfare being routinely used by many others.

While Mr Casey's campaign was run on an entirely negative basis - up to and including a bizarre attack advertisements about Michael D Higgins's dogs - the political establishment in this country will have to prepare itself for more of the same.

Having witnessed the success that Mr Casey enjoyed, and how expertly he mined resentment and unhappiness, there are bound to be others who use his campaign style as a template when launching their own political careers.

For many, Mr Casey was a joke candidate. But the concerns of those who voted for him are very real - and of such significance to them that nearly one in four of those who voted opted to vote for an almost unknown former no-hoper.

And, politicians need to have a better answer than to simply ridicule.

Refusing to debate issues, or resorting to snide mockery, means that a message goes out to voters that their concerns are not deemed important. And that only breeds further resentment and bitterness.

Only time will tell if Mr Casey remains in the political arena and he will have to do some significant work on his policy platform if he does.

In a 30-minute interview on RTÉ radio on Monday, Mr Casey repeatedly spoke about his desire to enter politics, and even lead Fianna Fáil, but was never really probed on what, exactly, he wanted to do differently.

We know his campaign style is different, and that he speaks without a filter, but is that where the difference ends?

All listeners heard throughout the interview is that he is brimming with "ideas" to help "middle Ireland", but none of these ideas was fleshed out or even identified.

So, while the political establishment has watched Mr Casey's campaign with a mixture of shock and horror, it at least has the upper hand when it comes to articulating a policy platform.

What it also needs to do is prepare for more candidates like Mr Casey and learn to beat them at their own game, without expressing disdain for the voters who ultimately cast their ballot for the Derry man.

The only credible way to do this is to be willing to debate the issues that Mr Casey highlighted, but do so using facts and figures instead of relying on stereotypes and anecdotes.

Mr Casey may have a future in politics, or he may not, but the 340,000 people who voted for are not going anywhere.

Irish Independent

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